State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Quick Tips to Repair Broken Items and Keep Them Out of the Landfill

sandra goldmark in front of lamp
Sandra Goldmark is the senior assistant dean of interdisciplinary engagement at the Columbia Climate School and director of campus sustainability and climate action at Barnard College. She is also an associate professor in Barnard’s theater department. Photo courtesy Sandra Goldmark

What do you do when your shoes spring a leak, your toaster’s on the fritz, or your window fan stops spinning? Chances are, you grapple with feelings of guilt and then eventually toss it out. Unfortunately, in our society, it’s almost always easier and cheaper to order a replacement than to hire someone to repair it.

Sandra Goldmark is a proponent of building a better system — one where we as as a society focus on making sturdier items, sustainably produced, that can be repaired and kept in circulation for a long time, then repurposed or recycled at the end of their useful lives. This concept is called the circular economy, and she talks about it in her 2020 book, Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet.

In the circular economy formula, repair can be the trickiest variable for most of us. It’s not always feasible to track down a local expert who knows how to fix your item, and even if you do, it may not be an affordable solution. Since Goldmark founded and ran a repair service, we decided to ask her for tips on how and when it makes sense to look for a repair person, and how to do a few basic and common repairs ourselves. She shares tips in the Q&A and videos below.

First off, could you tell us more about how fixing stuff is related to sustainability?

Currently we live in a largely linear system of production and consumption. We extract resources from the earth. We make them into products that generally don’t last very long, and they go pretty much directly into an incinerator or landfill — often within a year. This causes a huge amount of emissions — the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that as much as 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the “production and use of everyday items” like food, cars, clothes and much more. It also impacts land use, habitat degradation and therefore biodiversity. It contributes to pollution of waterways and airways, as well as negative impacts on manufacturing communities where people are not always paid a proper living wage.

A circular system is necessary as part of a global transition because it means extracting fewer resources from the earth. In a circular system, the materials we do extract are renewable and ethically sourced. It means designing products that will last a long time. It means continuing to manufacture, but also developing systems for collection, remanufacturing, and redistribution — basically keeping materials in use for as long as possible. And that’s where repair sits. If you have an object that breaks, it should be very simple and logical to just fix it. The problem, of course, is that today in the United States and in many places around the world, it’s incredibly hard to get something fixed. Products are not designed for repair, so they’re hard to fix. New products are artificially cheap, so paying a local craftsman to fix your item is sometimes more expensive than just getting a new one.

How did you learn to repair broken items? 

I worked in theater as a set and costume designer for many years. So I learned to make and fix and paint. They call it upcycling now, but in theater it was more like Frankenstein-ing — and we do it all the time. You just get really comfortable with a lot of materials and tools. Also, I grew up with a mom who sewed, and who was very handy around the house and would fix all kinds of things. My whole family is a bunch of tinkerers, really.

For people who didn’t have that kind of upbringing and experience, where would you recommend that they start?

Well, the nice thing about fixing things is it’s really hard to mess it up, because the thing’s already broken. It’s a really wonderful place to get started with tinkering and working with your hands. There are tons of YouTube videos, especially from iFixit, that can teach you how to fix almost anything at home. There are repair cafes all over the country where you can go and volunteers will fix your object, but also teach you how to fix. There are maker spaces where you can practice fixing stuff with somebody who knows how to use the tools.

And if you don’t have time to fix it yourself, that’s okay. Don’t feel bad. Go get it fixed. See if you can pay somebody to do it. Go to your local cobbler. There’s no shame in it — in fact, the opposite. I think that the more we do these things at home and also spend money on them in our communities, the more we develop an ecosystem around repair.

In the repair service that you ran until 2019, what were some of the most common items you encountered?

We got a lot of lamps — which is why we wanted to show everyone how rewire a lamp [see video]. We got a lot of small appliances, and jewelry. Not fine jewelry, just cheap necklaces and earrings and stuff that people liked and wanted to keep. We got a lot of chairs, tables, and other small furniture. And some oddball stuff, like ceramics and toys.

What was interesting was that people mostly brought us everyday objects, not heirlooms and antiques. It wasn’t that people were only reserving repair for specialty items. It was more that repair was so inaccessible to them, that there was no way they could get these kinds of mundane items fixed until we opened our little shops.

One of your videos shows us how to darn a sock. Why did you choose to demonstrate that repair?

I chose a sock because it’s so easy and satisfying. You don’t need a lot of skills. You don’t need complicated tools. You don’t even need electricity. And you really can extend the life of a nice pair of socks for such a long time. Also, selfishly, my sock has a hole in it and I want to fix it!

Let’s go through a quick list of items we might commonly throw out. Is it worth it to try to fix these things?

  • Shoes?
    • For me, dropping off at the cobbler is always a ‘yes, go for it.’ It has to be good shoes, though — like you can’t really fix a sneaker sole. The cobbler will tell you if they can repair it or not.
  • What about nonstick pans that have gone sticky?
    • I stopped using nonstick stuff a long time ago because of the chemicals. We switched to cast iron and never looked back. If you season it properly, it’s the ultimate repairable pan because if it starts to get sticky, you just season it again. You put it in the oven with oil and then it becomes nonstick again. It’s totally amazing.
  • Toaster?
    • This one you can forgive yourself for throwing away — or hopefully recycling. It is incredibly hard to find parts to repair toasters, and it’s incredibly hard to find anybody who will actually fix it for you. But some toasters and microwaves can be recycled in New York City, especially if the housing is metal.
  • Electronics?
    • With electronics, sometimes you can get them repaired, and sometimes you can do it yourself. Fix it if you can. If you can’t, recycle it and buy a used one, knowing that the global statistics on e-waste recycling are really poor. But until that bigger system gets a little better, you’ve done what you can.

One of my big philosophies is, you don’t have to feel guilty if you didn’t fix every broken thing in your house, or if you didn’t repair your shoes. My philosophy is that I just try to do the best I can, and work with others to get corporations and policy makers to make it easier for us to do the right thing.

Any other tips for people who are just trying their best?

On the personal level, the area where I find I am able to make the most concerted effort is actually in the purchasing moment. When I buy something, I’m trying to buy something that is sustainably made, that is repairable. Can you buy a high quality item, used, that’s fixable? That’s when you really have the capacity to impact the end of life of that product. On a bigger level: advocate, advocate, advocate. We’ve got to push for a system where getting all kinds of items fixed is as simple and accessible as pushing that “buy now” button — as easy as darning a sock!

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
9 months ago

Heres an idea.. stop manufacturing cheap plastic products. My grandma kept her sewing things in an old cookie tin. We had a floor model tv without a remote until i was like 13. And the sewing machine i first learned to use was an old Singer that had a manual foot pedal – no electricity. But these days, you cant keep and reuse the crap plastic wrappers things come in, and products are designed to die, so that people are required to spend more money on new ones, making the companies that make these products richer. And everything is made out of such terrible quality materials, you cant even repair it if you wanted to. If these large corporations stopped being so greedy, and valued their customers more than their profits, then they would make things that were designed to last, out of good quality materials, that can be either repaired or repurposed. Its not hard to figure out who is the problem. People can only buy the things that are being made available. So stop taxing the working man, because its not our fault. Go after the real bad guys, and start forcing corporations to use quality materials, and make stuff that lasts, and can be repaired or repurposed.